Thursday 18 August 2022

A Present Day Encounter with Susanah in Riches of the Earth - my First adult novel.


By 1990, I had worked for more than a decade in teacher education at
Sunderland (then a Polytechnic, now a University), having thrown myself into the fascinating but very hard work of educating teachers and focusing on the inner and outer lives of children. I loved the job. Always the idealist, I was very committed of the thrilling process of encouraging new teachers in the practice of child-centred education.

 This principled process involved creating a classroom ethos where children had the time and space to engage in the world of school by interacting through language and creativity which allowed their unique identities to evolve in the universe of the classroom. Learning to read and write and to handle knowledge and information was integral to this process. In doing so the individual child would make progress within the primary curriculum.

 In those days I was critical of the highly centralised French and German education systems where I learned, the educational progress of every child is monitored, noted, and reported to the central authority. And in primary schools across each country on any given day pupils would be going through the same routines of the curriculum.

 A free spirit myself, for me in those days, markers for success for the children should be measured through the development of talking, reading and writing skills which fostered the personal confidence that should emerge through their experience in the classroom,

 In the field of mathematics, for instance. success was measured as the individual child develops problem solving strategies and skills, using observation and the use of evidence.

 In those idealistic days monitoring a child’s educational achievements was not dependent on centrally set exams and boxes being ticked so the child could be judged.. The idea then was that, with the help of a teacher in a creative classroom, each child should experience avenues to fulfil her or his own unique potential.

 But things have changed now. Today the practice of education is very different. What counts as education in these days is the crucial and sometimes destructive dependence on the centrally monitored system of tests and exams and boxes to be ticked and applied to children as young as seven.

In time, working as a lecturer basing my work on my ideal principles drained a great deal of both my emotional and intellectual energy, including as it did the supervision of the students actually working in classrooms right across the north-east.

Eventually I became tired and debilitated and rather sank into depression. I was told.  “Give your brain a body a rest, Wendy.” So that was why I came to leave the profession which I had relished so much.

 After a period of recuperation and rest, inevitably a new story started  to edge itself into my consciousness. Creativity abhors a vacuum. So it was that out of this jellylike morass emerges Susanah, my heroine, and around her, my first adult novel.

Reading Riches of the Earth now I realise that I had been distilling from my subconscious the voices, events and characters from my own rather troubled childhood when I experienced my day-to-day life with great intensity.   I see now that this intense inner reference came to inform and enrich my novels and stories as the years have rolled on.

For example, take Riches of The Earth - my first adult novel. As I read it now, the context and some of the feelings expressed in its pages bring to my mind my most recent book, Siblings, a short story collection written nearly 3 decades later than Riches of the Earth. It dawns on me now that this applies to most of my subsequent novels and stories.
However, I would emphasise that I do not tell the same story in every novel; it is much more complex than that.  In writing my fiction I am dipping into a complex multi-layered world buried deep within me.  As the years have gone by I have this process has been a strong element in my fiction. (I have written essays elsewhere here on Life Twice Tasted about this mirage-like border between memoir and fiction.)
And now I am I am beginning to realise that, in collaboration with my friend literary archivist Donna Maynard, in this process of the exploration of all my work, I am rediscovering myself as a writer and a human being.
I honestly don’t remember thinking about all this as I wrote the novel. Like each of my novels Riches of the Earth  flowed from my head through my arm into the ink and onto the page. It is dawning on me now that my academic research and my understanding of children and their thought processes filters through into the novel, as it was very much part of my recent life at that time. My instinctive insight into the lives of my evolving characters was nurtured by and grounded in my professional insights and principles.  

So-o-o, here I am recognising that, in writing all my novels, I was then and have been since influenced by my own contemporaneous experience of family life as well as my research – lending sociological and psychological insight alongside the instinct and commitment to what my characters would do next. I do remember loving my characters who reminded me of my own growing children and also the young people who had filled my professional world for so long.

Having completed Riches of the Earth I was delighted that  the prestigious publisher Headline – then newly established - wished to publish the novel when I first offered it. Once there I welcomed the support and insight of my editor, the wise and gifted Anne Williams  She guided and supported with me on my journey through a good number of books. I felt I was in very good hands until she moved on to higher things, eventually taking on her present role as a respected agent. Her writers are very lucky. My next editor - Harriet Evans – a talented writer herself, was also very supportive of my novels as they emerged. Interestingly, Harriet has proceeded to become a very much-admired novelist in her own right.

At this point I need to continue the discussion which I started in the last essay on Life Twice Tasted about the significance of covers. Delighted as I was at the time that Riches of the Earth was to be published.  the original hardback cover – although it seemed like a bit of magic at the time – now looks predictable and stereotyped and not really true to the energy of the narrative. You will see this included here. However, you will also see that the cover of the paperback, published in the same year, is infinitely better than the hardback cover. Susanah’s face at the top is alive and has a sharp contemporary feel. The World War I aeroplanes on the front and back cover offer a predictive reference to the role of World War I in the narrative. Altogether the paperback cover has much greater energy and narrative reference,

So, as I read Riches of the Earth again after more than thirty years, I enjoy afresh revisiting the varied characters as they live their lives from1895 right through to 1914, culminating with the international shock of the First World War. As with novels written during the following decades, many issues precious to me are woven into the narratives – identity, class, war, comradeship, women’s lives, the nature of work, family politics, birth, death, and here in this novel, pacifism.

 In this and further novels I observe myself as a kind of ghost in my own family, going back through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, dipping into my Welsh, Scottish and Irish heritage. It seemed to me that in this novel, Susanah, the central character. and Caradoc her father are particularly recognisable. I can see myself clearly dipping into my own Welsh heritage and particular perceptions of family life politics.

 In Riches of the Earth I observe that the pattern of power and control in the family is threaded through the narrative arc of the novel as it is in further novels. I note with retrospective approval that in this narrative as well as the others I have not been reduced to stereotypes or sentimental image is of north-eastern family life.

 Incidentally in reading the book again I am also reminded that I have alluded to an historically true event - within the fictional narrative. This is when a young soldier hitches a ride with a pilot who is flying reconnaissance over the battlefield. The boy is amazed as he looks down at the River Somme spread out below him in the French landscape. This incident was inspired by a detail from my research into letters, memoirs and personal histories from that time. Like other true elements, it serves to enhance the authenticity of in my fictional story –   all emerging from my deep research into contextual sources which provides and continues to provide deep realism into what are fictional narratives in all my novels.

 Lastly,  for your further interest I have included here below the synopsis - probably created by Anne Williams – of the story from the cover of the hardback. It is an excellent example of a well-written synopsis. Here it is:

When, in 1895, the Laydon Joneses move into Selby Street they are just another Welsh family who have come to work in the mines of County Durham. But Caradoc Laydon Jones, dour, unforgiving and in his spare time a genius of clockmaker, is a force to be reckoned with, whether it be down the pit, or in the chapel, or in his home where he rules with an iron fist. His daughter Susanah has inherited his strength but will not, she is determined take on his bitterness. And Jonty Clelland the young pacifist schoolmaster by whom she is increasingly intrigued, is the antithesis of her father. At the annual young people’s camp in Livesey Woods it looks as if the attraction between Jonty and Susanah might finally blossom into love - until tragedy intervenes. The news is brought that Susanah’s younger sister has been drowned in the colliery pool and before long her timid mother, who had never learned to speak the language of the English has followed her into her grave.

Overwhelmed by guilt, Susanna is left to look after her grief- maddened father and a handful of brothers, estranging herself from the man whose arms were around her as a little sister drowned. And when her vivacious friend Betty died in childbirth, leaving her husband, local football hero Mervyn Sargant, alone with a tiny baby, Susanah knows what she must do. Without fuss she adopts the child and, at his pleading, finally agrees to marry the broken Mervyn. But as the country enters the nightmare of the First World War, Susannah, prompted by her warm hearted Aunt Bel, begins to realise that life was to be seized and lived – that she, as much as those she loves, has a right to all the riches of the earth has to offer.”

“A vividly textured novel, steeped in the passions and the politics of the north-east, which is the of the Earth is Wendy Robertson’s first novel.”


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